Online Superstar Rudy Mancuso Brings Insight and Inspiration

The Frost School of Music brought online music and comedy star Rudy Mancuso to the University of Miami campus Wednesday, to screen his debut film “Música” and talk about his original path to storytelling success.

Rudy Mancuso has turned his unique life story and category-busting talents – a puppetry-loving Brazilian-American who hears music in life’s noise and turns self-mockery into hilarity – into online super-stardom. Who, despite his highly unconventional route to success, always had faith in his singular creative vision.

“I believe in my abilities, and I know I have a story worth telling,” said Mancuso. “The dream seemed very unrealistic for a very long time. But for some reason, I never doubted.”

On Wednesday, the Frost School of Music hosted Mancuso at the University of Miami's Coral Gables campus. Mancuso, who was in Miami to promote his first feature film “Música" before a gala premiere at South Beach that evening, shared his inspirational story with awestruck students, who got to see a special preview screening of “Música" at the Bill Cosford Cinema.

The movie, which premieres on Prime Video on April 4, is written, directed, and stars Mancuso in what he says is his own life story. It follows Rudy, who lives with his loving but overbearing Brazilian mother in a Newark neighborhood called The Ironbound filled with Brazilian and other immigrants, studying (and failing and hating) business in college while making music in his bedroom and doing puppet performances in the subway. Rudy has synesthesia, which causes him to turn the clatter in a diner or the sounds of a park into an elaborate rhythmic symphony only he can hear. This complicates his efforts to decide between staying in a relationship with his white girlfriend, Haley (Francesca Reale), who wants him to join her in a conventional marketing job and life; or moving on with Isabella, a Brazilian-American free spirit played by Mancuso’s real-life Brazilian-American girlfriend Camila Mendes.  

“This movie was as autobiographical as I could make it,” Mancuso said at the Cosford. “It was a decade of experiences boiled down to a few weeks in a cinematic timeline.” His home in the film was shot at his childhood house in The Ironbound; his real mother plays his onscreen mother; he and his mother shopped regularly at the fish market where the movie’s Isabella works.

“I knew my first film had to be something so personal that only I could tell it,” Mancuso said. “At a time when it feels like we’ve heard every story and every perspective – we haven’t. I explored two perspectives that I’d never seen on screen, the Brazilian-American experience and the synesthetic experience. Every person in this room has a story that only they can tell.”

After the screening, Mancuso, 32, sat onstage at the Cosford to chat with Carlos Rafael Rivera, the Chair of the Media Scoring and Production Department at the Frost School, and a successful film and television composer, and answer students’ questions. Mancuso asked about their majors and answered thoughtfully, while also, inevitably, joking at himself. “Oh my god, so much PTSD being back at college,” said Mancuso, who dropped out of Rutgers University his sophomore year.

“I respect the hell out of people who see the whole thing through and graduate from college,” said Mancuso, whose synesthesia made academics difficult. During his appearance, he kept bouncing his foot or thrumming his fingers, unconsciously beating out a rhythm. “I had a hard time subscribing to that structure. I physically couldn’t do it. Standard exams and I did not agree.”

“I would not have graduated high school had I not convinced my principal that I would [play music] at all the middle school graduations.” He pauses. “I’ve never told anyone that.”

When he skipped classes to film commercials for Newark restaurants, his mother applauded. “You’d think she’d be like ‘go to class’,” Mancuso said. “No, my mom was like my agent, ‘let’s go to that restaurant and make a couple thousand bucks filming a commercial.’ 

Mancuso was bullied growing up, and saw his mom mistreated when she ventured outside their Brazilian enclave in New Jersey. Comedy became his defense. “Anytime someone would bully or make fun of me I’d fire back with something witty or a talent they didn’t have,” he says. That toughness helped him endure the invective that accompanies online popularity. “As someone who’s made a lot of videos and content on the internet I’ve been called every name under the sun,” Mancuso said. “You just have to do it and train yourself not to care.”

Mancuso told students he started by making puppet shows and music, and in 2013 began making 6-second videos on Vine, the defunct but then popular short video app, building storytelling skills and an online audience. A close, longtime friend, fellow comedian Ramy Youssef, the creator/star of “Ramy” on Hulu, persuaded Mancuso to move to L.A.  He moved on to YouTube, where his video series “Awkward Puppets,” with his handmade puppets (one of which appears in “Música”); and “Superhero,” with its hilariously contentious, culturally diverse heroes; and other music and comedy videos, have racked up tens of millions of views. Other music and video projects followed. He built a massive following and learned to tell stories that merged music, comedy, creative struggles, and the contradictions of immigrant and multi-cultural life in his own way.

But he always wanted to make a movie. “Videos and trends are very fleeting,” said Mancuso, who has a tattoo of silent filmmaker Charlie Chaplin, and admires masters like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Brazilian director Walter Salles and Italian Roberto Benigni.  “Films last forever.” 

By the time Mancuso pitched “Música” to Amazon approximately five years ago, he knew he had an audience of millions eager for his distinctive vision. A big part of that shows in the natural racial and cultural diversity of “Musica,” so normal in Miami and so many American cities. Mancuso praised the executives at Amazon MGM Studios for welcoming his story. "They were embracing diversity and exploring unique cultural perspectives," he said. "They got it."   

After years of going his own way, working with producers and editors with more conventional backgrounds was challenging for Mancuso. He prepared meticulously for the musical numbers, which he composed. But he also insisted that the performers – real Brazilian musicians and artists - playing the percussive symphony of clattering knives, clacking forks, swishing brooms, stomping feet and booming batucada drums in the musical scenes did so live, instead of recording and overlaying the music later. “I left it up to the musician to play that fork in the diner however they wanted as long as it was in time,” Mancuso says. “We had 99 microphones sometimes. It drove everyone crazy. They said we’ve never seen this before, you do sound in post, you’re wasting time. But when we got to post-production, they thanked me.”

After the session, Mancuso took time to pose for photos with every student who asked to do so. He encouraged students eager but anxious about pursuing their artistic dreams to take risks, work hard, learn their craft, and have faith in themselves. “I did it because I loved it, but I didn’t make any money for a long time,” Mancuso says. “I feel like young people are overwhelmed by the saturation of the market. Everyone wants to be creative and stand out. But there’s this idea that everything has been done before. Yeah, maybe. But not by you.”